What transpired when one first-year Emory grad student decided to embrace modesty and its principles for nine months, hold herself accountable, and make her journey 100% public? “It was a life-changing experience for me and many people I related to,” says Lauren Shields 14T, founder of The Modesty Experiment and author of the forthcoming book of the same name. As an unhappy Manhattan film editor, “The widely-accepted sexual harassment I experienced in the film world brought into sharper focus the oppressive aspect of having to look a certain way to be taken seriously."
The idea crystallized into a bold concept that surpassed simple dress code and incorporated a deeper spiritual connection with her sense of self. After researching the Amish, Quaker, and Muslim lifestyles, “I started thinking about the utility of dressing modestly.” She points out human perceptions are first based on appearance rather than inner beauty. “But what is beautiful? What qualities do people value in another person?” It turns out that “every woman had a lot to say about the subject, and they’d been waiting to share their stories.”
Shields began by evaluating her history. “Whether women wear make-up and fancy clothes, or a simple dress and head wrap, our lives involve different costumes every day,” she says. Growing up in a single-parent household with her brother and author father, Shields’ youth contained no television and few female role models. “I dressed like a boy, but the women in our life taught me it was okay to be a girl.” She later moved to her mother’s home and went through “a time period of striving to be conventionally attractive” while coming to terms with her exploration of religion and faith. Years later, after a layoff forced her to choose her future path, Shields realized that in clinical pastoral counseling in a hospital environment, “all the stuff about me that didn’t make sense suddenly fit together.”
As she approached her 30th birthday in her first year at Candler, committing to nine months of a modest lifestyle was a huge step. Shields publicly announced her personal quest, started a blog, swallowed her fears, and “told as many people as possible.” She completed a photo journal of her beauty possessions, added up the cost, and agreed to set aside her nearly $700 in beauty products. Support for her effort was overwhelming.
Shields defined modest as covered legs above the knee, covered shoulders, covered hair, and no make-up. Though outwardly she may have looked different, the pursuit never stopped her from enjoying swing dancing with friends a few times a week. The toughest aspect of the experiment? “Not wearing make-up.”
Men reacted with a range of responses to her modest appearance. “In certain social settings, I never had so much trouble being acknowledged,” she recalls. “Because of my appearance, men assumed I would not be open to advances from guys. The entire male-female dynamic completely changed.” One common reaction “was that people thought I had cancer because of head wrap and lack of make-up.”
After living the modest life for one year, Shields came to several crucial realizations. “Before the experiment, I cared too much about the way I looked,” she says. “Afterwards, I decided to become more aware of the fun aspect of dressing up, and to remind myself that it’s not necessary. I’m much better at shopping now for need rather than want, and I’m letting go of cultural trappings.”
Honestly facing her inner self, Shields ultimately “learned that I didn’t have to dress up or wear make-up to be beautiful.” The Modesty Experiment was a journey that led her to meet a supportive, genuine man who “loves me for me, not the way I dress.” Shields couldn’t be happier.